There is much rejoicing in the land for Sun fans as D.J. Strawberry has finally been signed. I know I already said it once, but good news deserves repeating twice. Now on with your regularly scheduled FIBA report:
Puerto Rico Shocks Brazil (97-75)
Wow, did Puerto Rico make me look bad in my prediction that Brazil would come away with a fairly easy win or what? A little confession: Tonight was the first time I'd seen Puerto Rico play a complete game in this tournament, so I really had no basis for my prediction other than looking at their record in the preliminary round. However, last Wednesday as I was working on getting my laptop hooked up to the TV for watching the NBA.com webcasts, I used the Puerto Rico-Mexico game to test the connectivity. I didn't catch much of that game, and I was distracted by the task at hand, but what I saw of Puerto Rico didn't exactly knock my socks off. Finding out they went on to a 1-3 record in the preliminary round--with their only win coming against now-eliminated Panama--certainly didn't help my opinion of their chances against a Brazilian team that, were it not for running into the Team USA buzzsaw last night, might have headed into this game undefeated. But like they say in the stock market: Past performance is no indication of future performance. This game came down to one simple fact: Puerto Rico came ready to play from the opening tip and Brazil didn't.
It was pretty obvious early on that my "easy mark" prediction was in serious jeopardy. Brazil came out sluggish and ice cold from the field, and Puerto Rico was full of energy from the start. Unlike your friendly Bright Side blogger, Puerto Rico clearly did their homework for this game. Right away, they started dumping the ball repeatedly down to center Peter John Ramos, for whom Brazil had absolutely no answer, and on rare occasions when that didn't work, they could always count on Elias "Larry" Ayuso for a three-pointer. They jumped out to a 9-1 lead within the first three minutes, and even though Brazil managed to stay within reach for most of the game, Puerto Rico had an answer for them every time. So, what happened here? Was Brazil over-confident and/or suffering a let-down from last night's Team USA-authored pasting? Or was Puerto Rico just finally playing to their potential? Either way, this was obviously a really nice win for the guys in blue, and very, very well deserved (on both ends of the floor).
Player of the Game: I'm going with the cop-out option and giving dual Players of the Game for the symbiotic contributions of Peter John Ramos on the inside and Larry Ayuso on the outside. Neither would have been as effective without the other, and they were both equally deserving.
Runner-Up: Leandro Barbosa bounced back from his horrific night against Team USA, scoring 34 points on 10-20 shooting, but despite the flack I'm likely to catch from fellow Suns fans, I'm going with Tiago Splitter. As nice as Barbosa's line was, it took him a while to really get going, and by the time he did, the game had pretty much gotten away from Brazil. Splitter played with energy from the get-go, and was instrumental in keeping Brazil in the game early on. He finished with 15 points on 6-11 shooting, to go with 11 rebounds and two assists.
Random Thoughts: I can't figure out why Brazil doesn't try to run more. Good things almost always happen for them when they do, but tonight they did very little of that, and it cost them. Maybe it was Puerto Rico's defense, I'm not sure. But you'd think when your star player is maybe the fastest guy in the NBA, implementing a running game would be a no-brainer.
USA Tops Mexico by "Only" 27 (127-100)
Could it be that over-confidence is finally setting in for the Red, White and Blue? Team USA once again blew out their opponent with relative ease, but it wasn't quite the same 40 minutes of total domination the prior four games had been. Team USA jumped out to an early 22-point lead by the end of the first quarter, and it appeared the rout was on even earlier than usual this time. But, then complacency set in, coupled with Mexico's refusal to lay down, and Team USA ended up with the closest thing they've had so far to a sub-par performance. Of course, they still managed a 27-point margin of victory and were never in any real danger of losing, so even Team USA not at its best is still pretty darn good.
Amare Stoudemire got the start tonight over Dwight Howard, but the joy was short-lived for Suns fans hoping to see a huge early impact from Amare as a result. Amare took only one shot in his first stint on the floor (mostly due to lack of touches), though he did play with a lot of energy on the boards, grabbing three rebounds in his initial five minutes of play. But it really wasn't until the fourth quarter, long after the game was in hand, before Amare really got going, and once he did, the show was on. His fourth quarter repertoire included a couple of slams, a nice block, and an unbelievable circus shot thrown over his head backwards while getting fouled. He finished up with 12 points on 4-5 shooting, five rebounds, and the aforementioned block in his 20 minutes of play. And this may sound like I'm being a "whiny" Suns fan, but Amare would have had a much more impressive stat line had his teammates just passed him the dang ball!
Player of the Game: The crowd who attended this game would be disappointed that I'm not giving this to Kobe Bryant, whose name they chanted throughout the evening, but I just can't do it. And it isn't just an inability to see past my anti-Kobe bias either. It's about Kobe forcing up shot after shot in a second quarter in which his team was outscored by eight points. He may have been aggressive, but his 5-13 shooting was far from efficient, and often came when other guys (including Amare) were a lot more open than he was. I even thought his shot-happiness helped feed the transformation of what had been a well-oiled machine up to this point in the tournament into a sloppy, one-on-one extravaganza. I'm also going to snub Carmelo Anthony, who once again led his team in scoring with 28 points on 10-17 shooting, to go with five rebounds, three assists and two steals. He deserves this spot as much as anyone, and would probably get it if I hadn't given it to him last time, but I'm going to do something a little different and go with Dwight Howard. His 19 points came on 9-10 shooting, and near-perfection on that many shots nearly always gets my attention. He also did it off the bench in only 18 minutes.
Runner-Up: There was so much group effort that went into Mexico's "holding" Team USA to a 27-point margin of victory that I'm going to take the lazy way out for the second time tonight and award this spot to the entire team. Thanks for giving it your best shot, guys! Those "no fight" blowouts were becoming quite tiresome.
Random Thoughts: Puerto Rico's reward for making me eat a rather large dish of corvus brachyrhynchos tonight? They get to play Team USA tomorrow (8pm Pacific/11pm Eastern). Brazil gets Mexico at 5:30pm Pacific/8:30pm Eastern. If Mexico plays like they did tonight, Leandro and crew could be in serious trouble.